All six women nod their heads as the coach speaks about the importance of fruit in their diets. These are township women who have discovered that they need not necessarily be plump to look healthy and that their bigness may result in illnesses.
All the women are keen to lose weight, but more than that, they are there to share lifestyle tips. ”We black people love eating starch. Pap is starch and we have it with potatoes; starch is our staple diet and we don’t realise how big it makes us,” said Rebone Nkomo, the Dobsonville branch Weigh-Less coach, as the ladies nodded in agreement.
The women who attend the hour-long class at a surgery in Dobsonville every Saturday morning range from chubby to obese. ”I got so big that I couldn’t walk so I decided to join this group because I had tried everything else,” said Maria Matebula from Bramfisherville.
Matebula, a 33-year-old, unemployed mother of two, said she tried every method of dieting before joining. ”I started having problems with my weight when I was in my early twenties. I drank pills, shakes and other concoctions only to find myself three times bigger than what I originally was before,” she said.
When she was 27, a doctor told her that she was at risk of having heart problems by the time she reached 35. ”I ignored that for a few years and last year, when I was 32 I realised that I was nearing 35 and if I didn’t do something about the way that I lived my life I was going to die.
”The thing with us black people is that we eat the wrong kind of food because we have a perception that being fat is a black thing and that we are beautiful when we are fat. Meanwhile we are dying.”
At the end of the session the women all rushed to the scale to see if they had had a ”good” or ”bad” week. Some of the bigger women were too shy to get on the scale in the presence of strangers — myself and the photographer — and left without weighing themselves.
”We tend to eat more when we have hectic weeks because we don’t have time to weigh the portions,” said Zandile Hlatshwayo, who stripped down to her underwear before getting on the scale. ”I have lost 4kg in four months and that is a big deal.”
It’s been 11 years since Weigh-Less opened a branch in Dobsonville. The first was opened in Soweto at Baragwanath in the 1980s and was followed by one in Mamelodi. Today there are 50 venues in townships around the country, with most of the groups being attended by older women.
Sibongile Hlongwane is the project manager for the company’s developing markets. ”There are a lot of obese black women because so many of them still believe that being fat is a way of showing wealth and contentment.
”We also have men in our groups, but they mostly come to these groups for health reasons after being diagnosed with obesity-related illnesses.”